The so-called Mach drills were part of a comprehensive system; frankly that is what I see missing today. Just because it looks like the sprint action does not mean there is much transfer. Similar is not the same. As I have seen the use of the Mach drills grow in popularity to the point now where they are universally used. I think the concepts behind the drills are quite simple but I am not sure that many people today understand them and the historical context of the system. My purpose in this article is to lend a historical perspective on the Mach drills. This perspective is intended to clarify the application of the drills. I must emphasize that this is my perspective and opinion based on discussion, observation as well as my coaching experience.
I was first introduced to the Mach drills in 1975 by a group of Canadian athletes training in Santa Barbara Calif. They taught me the drills and gave me an article on the drills written by Gerard Mach who was the national coach of Canada at the time. I was immediately attracted to the drills because I could see logic and a system to their application. Superficially they did not appear to be different from the drills that Bud Winter (Coach at San Jose State University and the coach of Tommy Smith, Lee Evans et al) had taught for years, but after reading Mach’s article there was a clear logical sequence that was not apparent with the Winter drills. Each drill had a specific place in the system and could be prescribed to address individual weaknesses or be modified to be event specific. I began to use the drills myself and with my high school athletes with very good results. At the time I still thought the drills were technique drills. If fact the improvements in technique and performance were coming because of the improvement in specific strength developed that resulted in improved posture and leg action, which significantly improved ground contact quality and force.
The introduction to the drills has gotten my attention I felt that I now needed to find out more about the drills and how they fit into the whole system of sprint development. In 1976 the Canadians had a training camp in Southern California where I was able to observe Mach coach for several days. This gave me a better depth of understanding of the drills and their application. I also saw how they applied in hamstring rehab when I watched Coach Mach work with a 400 Meter runner who had pulled his hamstring three days previously, which gave me an insight into the rehab application of the drills. This runner was back in competition within three weeks and ran a personal best. The rehab use of the drills was aggressive but very criteria driven.
In 1977 I met Dr. Al Biancani, who was the coach at Cal State University Stanislaus, he had apprenticed under Mach. Al was very generous to share his knowledge of the Mach system and his interpretation with me. This was a tremendous help in understanding correct technique on the drills, coaching cues as well as their place in the whole system. In January 1978 I was able to attend a day and a half clinic by Gerard Mach. He spent three hours detailing the development of the Mach Polish Sprint School from his own experimentation first as an athlete and then the application with athletes like Andzej Badenski and Irena Szewinska. It was an epiphany. It was an incredible system, as I look back he was far ahead of his time. The system and concepts that he articulated in the 1950’s are those concepts that every good sprint coach uses today. A cornerstone of his system was the A, B, & C drill series. Initially he designed the drills to enable the sprinters to get the repetition of work necessary to prepare to actually sprint in the adverse weather conditions that occurred in the winter in Poland. In his presentations he always pointed out that he did not have the good weather that the American sprint coaches in the west and south enjoyed, so he had to come up with alternatives to build a foundation of special strength.
Mach broke the sprint stride into its components parts, knee lift, foreleg action and the push off. Each drill is designed to work one of the components of the sprint stride. The “A” Drills work the knee lift component. The “B” Drills work on foreleg reach or pawing action. According to Mach “All exercises with leg extension and active down are special exercises to strengthen the hamstrings.” (Page 6, Sprinting & Hurdling School by Gerard Mach, CTFA 1977) “The marching and skipping exercises were designed to develop the technique required for body lean, arm action, high knee lift, leg extension, and keeping the center of gravity high, but did not emphasize the strong driving forward or push forward action.” (Page 6, Sprinting & Hurdling School by Gerard Mach, CTFA 1977) from biomechanical analysis of sprinting we know that sprinters do not paw the track, but this action is a specific hamstring strengthener because it works the hamstring eccentrically to decelerate the foreleg. The ”C” Drills were designed to work on push off and extension.
My interpretation, from discussions with Gerard Mach and Biancani, as well as my extensive use of these drills over the years is that their primary benefit is not as technique drills. They are drills to specifically strengthen the muscles in postures and actions that are similar to those that occur during the sprint action. It is through strengthening in the specific positions that technique is improved. I consider them posture drills, specific strength drills and functional flexibility drills. The technical benefit is ancillary. These drills do have a prominent place in a sprint-training program but if they are not taught properly and constantly coached incorrect execution and repetition will ingrain bad habits. Correct execution at the precise rhythm and tempo through a full range of motion are paramount to insure positive transfer. Posture must be a constant emphasis. Hips tall!
One of the biggest faults on the “A” series of exercises is the emphasis on knee lift at the expense of impulse into and off the ground. The knee lift occurs because of what happens on the ground. On the drills the knee should not be pulled off the ground, but driven down to create a quick strike on the ground, which will result in knee lift. Perhaps the biggest fault that I see in execution of the drills is the rate of execution. Mach emphasized that the drill should be executed at ”three steps per meter.” Most people today do the drills significantly slower than this. He also emphasized the necessity of correct arm action on the drills. Too many times I see athletes doing the drills with very passive arm action, which is incorrect.
Each drill is sub divided into a marching action, a skipping action and a running action. In his workouts this was designated by the subscript as follows:
- Subscript 1 = Marching
- Subscript 2 = Skipping
- Subscript 3 = Running
The drills progress from marching to skipping to running. The drills can be incorporated daily as part of warm-up. They are used as workouts to emphasize either power speed or strength endurance and they were used for rehab after hamstring pulls. For workouts the drills done at less than ten repetitions, less that ten meters, less than ten seconds, this was termed “Power Speed.” Mach would also add resistance to the drills in the form of a sandbag or a weight vest. If this was the case then the drills were designated as “Power Speed Mixed.” If the drills were done longer that 20 meters, more than tens reps and more than ten seconds in duration they were designated as “Strength Endurance.” If resistance was added to this then it was termed as “Strength Endurance Mixed.” Irena Szewinska was reported to have executed a series of 200 Meter A2’s. I personally have used A2 and A 3 for 4 –6 x 50 meters with a weight vest (10 % body weight) with developmental athletes.
The drills are a great lead in to teaching hurdles. The lead leg action is actually a “B” action, the trail leg is a “C” action closely coupled with an “A” action. Another aspect of the drills that picked up from Mach that I do not see applied very often is to link the drills to acceleration. For example execute an A3 for 10 Meters and change it over to an acceleration of 30 Meters. The goal here is to work a particular component of the stride and to immediately place it into the context of the whole the whole action.
I feel Mach was a genius. His work has stood the test of time. If we understand that the drills are part of a complex system used to develop the sprinter, hurdler, or jumper then they do have a place in the daily preparation of the athlete. I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to Mach’s system. He will be missed.